Thursday, May 13, 2010

E's Emotional Eating/ Nature vs. Nurture

I have said before that I am often pleased and surprised with the food choices E makes. She does not always eat what I would choose for her if I were choosing for her. But on a daily basis, she chooses fruits and veges over sweets, she does not binge on food, and she can easily put food (including sweets) down when she is in the middle of it just as soon she's had the last satisfying bite. (I struggle hard with this, and will just keep going until it's gone, then go back for seconds, even if I am no longer enjoying it, though it is getting easier.) I have also said before that I see her choosing food because of taste, texture, excitement to try something new, fun, experimentation and most importantly hunger. It seemed like she was not choosing because of emotional reasons, such as feelings of restriction/deprivation, out of rebellion or as a way to deal with sadness, fear, loneliness, etc.

I still see that she is not choosing food because of feelings of restriction or rebellion, because we do not restrict her food therefore there is nothing against which to rebel. However, I am noticing some emotional eating in the sense that she is sometimes turning to food when she is sad, lonely or tired.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my mom about food and emotional eating and she commented that she remembered that E used to ALWAYS be hungry. I have been thinking about that and it is true, she has been saying "I'm hungry!" 183,909 times a day since the day she was born. She's usually not hungry when she says that though, and it has been a source of frustration in our house in the past. We often have food out on the table or easy snacks to grab in the fridge so that when she utters those words for the 3 millionth time that day we can simply answer "There's food on the table" without having to get up and get her something AGAIN that she doesn't eat.

And that's the thing... She usually doesn't eat it. For the first couple of years of her life, being a new parent, not very in tuned or aware, and completely emotionally clueless myself, I thought that it was just one of those kid things she would outgrow. Then as I began to learn how to identify my own emotions and realize how often I stuff them down, I noticed that she says she is hungry when she doesn't know how to express what she is really feeling. So, I started giving her the words tired, sad, angry. However, I was still not being very open to allowing her to express those emotions, sending her to her room or getting angry about "temper tantrums." (That is another whole post in itself!)

Over the last couple of years, as I have worked on a lot of my own emotional issues, learned to express my emotions in healthier ways and learned to accept hers (usually!), her constant requests for food have definitely lessened. However, I still see that she does it. In fact, just today I was on the phone with my mom and E and I had a tiff over the office light. She melted down crying and I offered to let her talk to my mom. She calmed down and talked to her, but also went straight for the watermelon on the table and told my mom "Only food makes me feel better." Now, I know that "only" was just 4 year old exaggeration, because she has also told me that snuggles or playing or other things help her feel better. But it reminded me that she still has some healing to do.

I say "healing" because I believe that damage has been done and it started when she was only 3 months old. I went back to work, 40 hours a week and a few months after that I started working 60 hours a week until she was a year old. She nursed on demand whenever I was home, and was held in her daddy's arms all day, but she would not take a bottle of expressed milk. She would not take a finger feeder, sippy cup, eye dropper, regular cup or anything else we tried to get milk into her. We ended up starting her on solids at 4 months. I was quickly able to change my schedule to be able to come home on lunch breaks, but she still went 5 hours in the morning and then 5 hours after lunch every day without eating and she cried all the time. She was always hungry! While I do believe it is biologically normal and perfectly healthy for nursing to be for both food and comfort, she must have been physically and emotionally on over drive, swapping between extreme hunger and sadness for hours to suddenly having food and comfort on demand for hours, then back to hunger and sadness.

I have started occasionally asking her "are you hungry or lonely" when she expresses hunger, and she often answers lonely. Or I will say "do you want that (item of food) or would you like to play together?)" She knows she is free to say both, but often she will say that she would just like to play together. This is one more reason I am SO GLAD we have chosen to parent this way. With my emotional eating issues, the feelings of restriction (even the ones in my own mind about what I "should" eat) have a huge effect on the amounts I over eat and the unhealthy foods I choose.

I do believe there are nature issues at work here as well. In the nature vs. nurture debate, I tend to fall on the side of nurture usually being the main influence, but nature causing genetic tendencies that nurture can potentially expound upon in either healthy or unhealthy ways. D and I both have family histories of addiction, so I believe that there is a genetic component to her addictive tendency toward food. I think that addictive tendency could have played out in other ways had the circumstances been different, but the particular set of circumstances that has influenced her life so far led toward food.

I am glad that we can provide her an environment, support and awareness that is mostly free of the types of things that can cause food addiction, overeating, binging, and emotional eating. She does not have to deal with factors such as restriction, deprivation, extreme stress or fear, lack of emotional support or empathy, and comments about weight or body image. Instead, we can raise her with an awareness of this tendency (offering observations, not telling her how she feels) and support as she explores how her own body feels emotionally and physically in different circumstances and with different foods. We can partner with her to help her meet her needs, physically and emotionally, as she learns exactly what those are and how to express them.

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